Believe me, even if you discover that you’re happy living the way you’ve always lived, this journey ends with a gift: an awareness of our ability to choose the way that we want to be Jewish out of the truly vast range of approaches that Judaism offers.
I would like to share with you the special journey that I underwent, but beforehand…I have a confession to make.
I don’t usually act this way, but when a Conservative female rabbi came to speak at my school a few years ago, I let myself doze off. I have no excuses: I wasn’t sick that day and I wasn’t sitting in the last row. It was definitely not a nice thing to do, but that’s not my confession. The thing is that the reason I did it was because I didn’t see any point in paying attention to this type of Judaism.
I didn’t grow up in a religious environment, but nevertheless, it was always very clear to me what Jewish religion is about (or at least, so I thought): I was familiar with strict laws and customs observed by our extended family, I had met rabbis and rebbetzins, I had received a Torah book at the local synagogue in 2nd grade and I patiently waited for the third star to shine on Saturday night so I could finally take the train or go to the store. Like most Jews in Israel, I grew up on one type of Judaism – that today I know is called Orthodox Judaism – but I didn’t feel very connected to it. So as a comfortable, compromising default, I chose to be a secular Israeli. Over time, I heard that there are other sects, like Reform and Conservative Judaism, who do things a bit differently. But why should I be so advanced and alternative when I can simply be…secular?
That’s why last year, when I participated in HaYechida: A Year of National Service in the Diaspora through the Jewish Agency, I was surprised to discover an entirely new religious experience. Take Yom Kippur, for example. It’s a day on which I always excelled from a religious perspective: I fasted, I didn’t touch electricity and I kept a range of other customs. It’s the tradition. So imagine how interesting it was to come to a Reform temple last Yom Kippur and see women, men and even teens dedicating their full attention and time to a truly meaningful spiritual activity: a deep personal reckoning. They held discussions, sang songs, prayed, gave sermons and said thanks for what they have, while I simultaneously pondered the fact that this was a thousand times more important than tearing pre-cut toilet paper the way I used to do so listlessly right before the fast began. The positive atmosphere in the air felt good to me and stayed with me until the fast ended. And that’s just one of many examples.
Being exposed to different types of Judaism opened my mind, and the feeling of aversion to a Jewish lifestyle disappeared over the course of the year as it took on a different shape. But my belief in God did not get stronger – so why did I still feel that my Jewish identity was getting stronger? How was it that while I remained secular, I still enjoyed visiting the synagogues so much?
Makom, the Jewish Agency’s educational laboratory, helped me understand the phenomenon, and I hope that their idea will interest you as well. At Makom, they claim that when formulating our Jewish identities, each one of us chooses to identify with certain ideas atvarying degrees. These ideas represent three different approaches, which they call the “gateways to Jewish identity.”
The first approach sees Jews first and foremost as human beings, like anyone else. The Jewish nation as a group, if so, can work to turn the entire world into a more just and better place for the benefit of all people – not just for the benefit of the Jews.
The second approach sanctifies the connection between Jews all over the world – Bnei Yisrael. Their central motto is “All Jewsareresponsible for one another,” because we are all part of one big family.
The third approach emphasizes that Jews are members of the same covenant. Meaning, we have a covenant with God that was forged at Mount Sinai, as well as a shared history, and therefore we must live according to the Godly command. This includes the commandments, our tradition, our heritage and more.
Now, stop and think – to which of these approaches do you connect?
When you think of it that way, it’s clear why it’s possible to feel Jewish without feeling religious. Only the third approach represents a binding connection to the religious and cultural world of Judaism. If you feel like I do, it seems that you are living according to the first two approaches. These approaches are entire worlds of their own, which include beautiful characteristics that were always an integral part of Jewish life (like the ideas of community, humanity, fraternity, pluralism and freedom). I believe that when we bring these themes into our lives and advance the things that are important to us – we can discover a different, new-yet-old Jewish world.
I remember myself as a thirteen-year-old, standing opposite the Torah scroll and trying hard to feel emotional when my father said the words “Blessed is He who has exempted me.” It definitely could have been a meaningful moment for someone who felt inspired by Jewish rituals, but not for me. Around me stood many men who I didn’t know and up above, very far from me, my mother and sisters watched. Again, I felt the familiar sensation of a religious event with which any connection to me is purely coincidental. Sounds like a pretty upsetting situation, doesn’t it? If I would have found in that setting just a bit of personal connection, that uncomfortable atmosphere could have been replaced by a wonderful feeling. For example, if I would have been surrounded by a community of people I know who I identified with, and if my entire family could have been part of the feeling of fraternity in the synagogue. Such a positive experience would definitely have strengthened my love for the Jewish religion. But what actually happened is that the negative experience from my Bar Mitzva only strengthened my aversion to Judaism. This aversion stayed with me even two years later in high school, when that Conservative rabbi wanted to show me a different approach to Judaism, one that I could have related to – but I didn’t even give her a chance, because the entire Jewish religion was out of the question for me already. Think about it for a minute – do you understand how absurd that is?
I invite you to embark on a journey that will challenge your outlook on Judaism. No, you don’t need to go on shlichut overseas or ponder philosophical ideas. Just ask yourselves:
Who decides how Judaism is reflected in my life?
Does the Judaism in my life reflect my values?
What positive elements exist in Judaism that I can adopt in my life?
Who knows, maybe you’ll discover that your reality and your dreams don’t exactly match.